Age Group Politics – do older people vote selfishly?

Judith Davey

One of the threats foreseen by those who subscribe to the disaster/burden perspective on population ageing is that older people will use their numbers as voters to dominate the political agenda.  Linked to this is the belief that people become more conservative as they age and will vote accordingly. How much truth is there in this?

We know a lot more about if people vote than how they vote. It is very clear that, in New Zealand and many similar countries, the proportion of people who vote increases with age. In recent general elections, around 95% of New Zealanders aged 65 plus have voted, compared to 61% of those aged 18 to 24 and around 80% of people in the intervening age groups. If older people are voting selfishly, then younger people need to get out to vote to counteract any selfish tendencies!

According to research by political scientists there is limited support for the idea that voters necessarily become more conservative as they age.  Instead, most argue that much of the difference between older and younger voters is linked to cohort effects. People who grew up during wars and depressions, with an experience of deprivation, are more likely to be conservative than those who grew up during a post-WWII affluence. Changes in electoral systems can also affect voting patterns, for example, MMP gives a potential voice to smaller parties.

Then there are the platforms of political parties to consider. Are they addressing the concerns and needs of older people? Although there may be concerns about retirement income support and access to health services, beyond this the political interests of older people are as varied as in other sections of the electorate. Older citizens do not vote only according to what matters to them as seniors; they are clearly concerned about the future of their children and grand-children.

In some countries political parties have emerged to represent the interests of older people. Their fortunes will wax and wane, so it is difficult to find the most recent information, and none seem to have gained much political influence. Here are some examples:

In 2006, after failure in five previous elections, the Israeli Retired Persons Party garnered enough votes to enter the Knesset (parliament). It won seven seats out of 120 members, and became part of the ruling coalition, heading the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Older Persons.

In Germany, “Die Grauen” (“the Greys”/Grey Panthers) were a small party, founded by a former Green member of parliament and focusing on the rights of senior citizens.  Despite contesting many elections, the Greys could never pass the 5% threshold for representation in state, federal or European elections, although a few Greys were elected to municipal councils. The party existed from 1989 until 2008. Other German political parties have senior sections – “social democrats 60 plus”, “Green seniors”.

In the late 1990s there were two senior parties (Union 55+ and General Senior Alliance) in the Dutch parliament. They had a few seats (2 or 3) but they were not very successful because of dissention between them. A new party – 50 PLUS – was founded in 2009 and competed in the 2011 provincial elections, obtaining 9 seats in the States-Provincial and one seat in the Senate.

The Democratic Party of Pensioners of Slovenia, also known by the acronym DeSUS, was founded in 1991 and won parliamentary seats from 1992. In the 2008 elections the party won 7.4% of votes, 7 out of 90 seats and joined the coalition government. 

The “Gray Panthers” – a very well-known US pressure group, are a very good example of having a wider political agenda than simply to secure more rights and resources for older people. In the 1970s, one of their campaigns was Seniors against a Fearful Environment, which emphasized their solidarity with other disadvantaged groups. It supported Grandmothers against the war (in the Middle East). Eighteen members were arrested for allegedly blocking pedestrian traffic when they tried to enlist to replace young people serving in Iraq.

The Gray Panthers saw themselves as a multigenerational movement; their social vision­ included intergenerational housing and community-run clinics, emphasising preventive care. Shared housing ­”congregate living arrangements” in which people from a span of generations came together – ­was one of the Gray Panthers’ most ambitious concepts. They fought hard for a national health care system, nursing home reform, an end to age discrimination in employment, and better services to help older people to lead more independent lives. The present-day Gray Panthers continue to be at the forefront of advocacy against ageism and for social justice at the local, national, and international levels.

What do we have in NZ? On June 7, 2016, the New Zealand Herald headlined “New political party represents older New Zealanders”. According to this article, the New Zealand Seniors Party planned to register as an official party to run candidates in the 2017 election. Some of the party’s key platform issues appear narrow – fighting the “unfair” deduction of overseas pensions, suspending immigration (linked to hospital waiting lists) and a ‘Living Wage’ pension for seniors. A Grey Power response was skeptical – maintaining that this was a “one-issue party” to which they would not be aligned. However, looking in more detail at the policies of the New Zealand Seniors Party, as set out on their web site, they seem to have a wider platform, with wide-ranging views on health, education, employment and housing.

“The NZ Seniors Party exists for the common good of all New Zealanders……but with an emphasis on the needs of seniors. All will get old eventually and what is good for seniors now is good for those that follow.”

Next year we will see how they go.

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About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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